What Works For Me…
(…May Not For You)
I recently posted a version of this on my tumblr, 1 having typed it up with fat, but surprisingly speedy, thumbs on my phone one morning in bed. Sometimes I have ideas that need to be recorded immediately, notes taken, lest the thought flies away. This is something I shall also discuss soon but, for now, this is a note on how I draft. Give it a go if you want, see how or if it works for you, take what you need from it, discard the rest if it doesn’t work — the key thing to remember is this: we are all different, no one way is “right”.
Also, the irony of posting this here just as NANOWRIMO finishes is not lost on me.
tl;dr The method I use to write first drafts of my fiction.
Today, if you want to try my method of drafting, you need worry about nothing but 30 minutes. That’s it.
Set everything up beforehand: cup of tea, a cafetière of coffee, or whatever you enjoy drinking sitting within easy reaching-range and have a bottle of water on hand — always, always have water.
Open up whatever drafting software you like best or, if you prefer, a notebook and pen (have a spare pen on hand too — and do also consider pencil, it writes faster in some circumstances, doesn’t run, is potentially more likely to last in an archival context etc…).
All these things happen first. Then you set the timer.
Did I mention it will only be for 30 minutes?
Of course, by the time you sit there (or stand – standing can be much better for your body) you already have an idea of what you wish to write, even if it is a very basic one. This is not the time for planning, that comes before and is a whole other subject (yes, one day I’ll write about my process too, if you’d like?).
30 minutes on the timer.
Now you write. Simple, yes? Well, no.
For a start, this is the hardest bit for those unaccustomed to writing drafts — they panic. Hopefully, in order to help, here is what I do — those little tricks that enable me to write swiftly and even, at times, furiously.
I use Scrivener.
At this stage, always turn off the spelling and grammar check. Otherwise, those wiggly coloured lines will soon begin to irritate or, at best, distract.
On this subject, I switch to distraction-free mode, with the size of the screen and the opacity of the background already dialled in.
However, I make mistakes. Perhaps I miss a leter, or aspace. Perhaps i don’t capitalise or I spell someting incorectly.
Doesn’t matter. Just LEAVE it. Do NOT pause and add the letter, space, capital, or spell it correctly. That’s REDRAFTING and, later, EDITING, not drafting. We’re drafting, remember?
I plough on (or plow — have no fear about your version of English at this stage either, write in the words and spelling you feel most comfortable with, don’t worry about using dialect or local language habits — sometimes these things add a joy and colour to text, but that is something you ultimately decide later).
There will come a point where I will realise I’ve missed something crucial out earlier, or I change a name, or I create a name 2 in the first place.
Back to the missed-out bit, or the mistake.
Don’t fix it! Don’t you dare move cursor or pencil!
Leave the mistake where it is.
Do not worry.
Hit the caps lock (real or metaphorical), add in TKIDEA 3, then record that thought.
Get back to the draft.
It’s a mess.
Have you ever dug clay to make pottery in the wilderness? Or have you ever needed a new spoon carved in order to eat your dinner? No, just me then, ok, sorry, personal example, but still. The clay is a mess. It has roots in it. Soil. Leaves. Small rocks. You need to know how to edit it. The branch of the tree has bark, maybe moss, the spoon wrapped within wooden fibres, hidden from view. Neither stops you collecting these raw materials.
Same with writing.
This is a draft.
Not a polished edit, or even a redraft.
See how many words you can do. If you already have a good idea of how many — on the worst of days, not the best — use that as your minimum.
On days where words are like hen’s teeth and unicorn horns, I can write as few as 500. So that is my minimum target.
BUT it’s a target. When you are learning to fire an arrow or hit something with a sling, you DO NOT always hit the target. That’s life. That’s where practice comes in.
30 minutes at a time.
Invariably, the timer goes off. Unless you forgot to hit “go”. Which happens (side note, again, I also time all my working day with software, so I have that as a back-up).
You stop writing NOW.
No, really, you STOP. NOW. You DO NOT finish the word, let alone the sentence or paragraph, no, no, thrice no.
This way, you see, you are left with a loose thread to weave into the tapestry the next time. You won’t waste any of the next set of oh-so-precious 30 minutes, because you know exactly where you are going, what comes next.
Sometimes, and this is rare, your timer will go off just as you finish a paragraph or, even rarer, a scene, or a chapter.
In this case, switch your timer to either 2 or 3 minutes and keep going. Much better to have that thread the next day. If you think that’s too short a time, I disagree; you are wrong. 3 minutes is 10% of your 30 — you should be able to write the next bit in that time, surely?
That’s it. You’re done. You can reach for the rapidly cooling tea or coffee you forgot.
And then you count.
Obviously, this is easier in Scrivener or another word processor than it is by hand.
Then you record this number somewhere (I currently use a screenshot of the Project Target wordcount, posted on tumblr and backed up in Scrivener and Onedrive, but I’ve also used spreadsheets and hand-written the results too).
This record is important — you need to look at factors that curtail your drafts. Hence you’ll see notes on my tumblr, where I explain how, for example, I started later in the day, or I record a bout of illness. This gives you and me a much better idea of what we are capable of — even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
At this point you can stop for the day, or plan another 30-minute session. If the latter, you get up NOW and do something else for at least five minutes, maybe ten. Never, ever, ever do two 30 minute drafting sessions back-to-back without something different in between. That rarely works and when it does (yeah, I was once young, foolish, and hopeful), it is a statistical abnormality — not the norm. IN MY EXPERIENCE. This is why you keep a record and notes, so you can tell future-you not to make mistakes like that. (Your record will also show you if you CAN ignore this, and just keep drafting…)
Congratulations, you’ve drafted words. Messy, beautiful words.
Somewhere in that coal is a diamond. Somewhere, amidst the mass you’ve just collected from a riverbank is the clay you will use to make a cup. Your branch is whispering to you, showing you where to lay axe and knife. That is the next thing. For now, keep collecting the raw materials and, make no mistake, when you draft, those raw materials are simply a volume of words you manipulate later.
This is what works for me. It might not for you, but it is advice/a description culled from a long period of practice (and reading about and experimenting with the processes of others, something it seems all writers and artists love to do).
Good luck — but do please remember, in writing as in anything — you make your own luck through discipline, hard work, and practice.
- This tumblr is essentially just for me, to act as a sort-of diary and, principally, as a place to record my daily new words. This is my wordcountability.
- Side note — names, whether people, places, things. They will change. Start with a TK, for example, tkname for the main character if they are nameless, or tkbestfriend for her best friend, or tkenemy for her evil twin. You get the idea. At this stage you are drawing out the story. Later, things-magical occur and you invariably reach a point in your draft or, sometimes, redraft, where these tks mystically resolve themselves, as your subconscious continues to work on the problem of nomenclature.
- TKIDEA (FOR EXAMPLE): TKENEMY IS NOT ONLY AN EVIL-TWIN, BUT IS ACTUALLY THE MORE-EVIL OF TWO OUT OF THREE EVIL-TRIPLETS. TKNAME HAS TO BATTLE ON TWO FRONTS BEFORE SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCHING. ALSO, HER DOG? CAT IS POTENTIALLY EVIL TOO.